By CHRISTOPHER SORBEY
1. Jimmie Johnson- Despite winning two of the last five races, JJ insists that Kevin Harvick is the driver to beat this season. After finishing second to JJ at Kansas two weekends ago, Harvick would strongly disagree with the six-time champion’s declaration. In search of his eighth-career victory at Charlotte, the defending winner of the Coca-Cola 600 is hitting his stride at the right time.
2. Kevin Harvick- Good news: “The Closer” has won two of the last three Coca-Cola 600s. Bad news: Jimmie Johnson denied the reigning champ from recording the Charlotte three-peat last May. This endless cycle of déjà vu has to be wearing down on Harvick. Oh yeah, he’s fresh off two-consecutive runner up finishes (Kansas, All-Star Race) heading into this Sunday’s 600-mile marathon.
3. Martin Truex Jr.- The lean, mean, top-10-finishing machine was left off the guest list for last weekend’s all-star festivities, due to his inability to claim victory in 2015. In my opinion, NASCAR should have sent Marty an invite as a reward for turning the corner like he has this season. Come on NASCAR, it’s high time to change the eligibility requirements for your spring million dollar showdown.
4. Dale Earnhardt Jr.- When Dale Jr. speaks, NASCAR generally listens. This week “Little E” echoed the sentiment of a number of drivers who would like to see a few improvements made to next year’s all-star gala. End result — expect an earlier start time next year, because you know these drivers really need their beauty sleep.
5. Joey Logano- Winning the Daytona 500 was a pretty big deal for Joey Logano. If the wonder kid can pull off a win in the Coca-Cola 600, he’s well on his way to cementing his legacy as one of the all-time greatest in our sport.
6. Matt Kenseth- Fifteen years ago, Matt Kenseth collected his first-career Sprint Cup Series victory in the Coca-Cola 600. Fifteen years later, Kenseth heads into the 600 poised to make an impact, fresh off the heels of his JGR teammate Denny Hamlin’s all-star victory.
7. Jeff Gordon- For those of you who love happy endings, here’s one for you. How about Jeff Gordon winning this year’s Coca-Cola 600, 21 years removed from his first Coke 600 victory? Yes, the four-time champion will be everyone’s sentimental favorite Sunday night.
8. Kurt Busch- If you haven’t seen some of Kurt Busch’s most recent post-race interviews, you should fire up your laptops and give them a look, because they are some of the most inspiring and entertaining interviews in recent memory. There’s nothing like taking a discrete jab at your fellow competitors.
9. Denny Hamlin- It’s really hard to believe until last Saturday night Joe Gibbs Racing had never won an All-Star Race. What’s even more shocking is that Denny Hamlin was the driver to make the coach’s all-star dreams become a reality, considering JGR’s impressive driver lineup through the years featured the likes of champions Dale Jarrett, Bobby Labonte & Tony Stewart.
10. Kasey Kahne- Jimmie Johnson’s ridiculous vice grip over the Charlotte Motor Speedway is highly documented, but sometimes we fail to realize that another Hendrick Motorsports driver, Kasey Kahne, owns four-career victories down in the Queen City, and three of those four victories have come in the Coca-Cola 600. No time like the present to qualify for the Chase, right?
11. Brad Keselowski- BK and his trusty pit boss Paul Wolfe have recently taken up the art of gambling; only problem is their new hobby hasn’t translated into much success on the track since going on a hot streak earlier this spring. Brad, know when to hold ‘em; know when to fold ‘em.
12. Jamie McMurray- Some of Jamie Mac’s career-defining moments have come at Charlotte Motor Speedway, so calling him a dark horse to win this Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 seems like a stretch, but this wouldn’t be the first time we’ve said this about Joplin, Missouri’s favorite son.
13. Ryan Newman- I’m totally convinced Ryan Newman’s career resurgence since joining Richard Childress Racing is 90 percent pure talent and 10 percent pure luck. Guess somewhere along the way we forgot how good of a driver the “Rocket Man” really is.
14. Clint Bowyer- Clint’s last career victory came at Charlotte nearly two-and-a-half years ago and he’s fresh off winning an All-Star Race qualifier at Charlotte. Perhaps this is the weekend Mr. Bowyer crushes that dubious winless streak.
15. Kyle Busch- “Rowdy” made his much-anticipated return to the track during last weekend’s all-star festivities at Charlotte. Now the real test begins for one of the most decorated drivers of the modern era. Can Kyle make the Chase for the Sprint Cup, despite a three-and-a-half-month absence from the cockpit?
16. Aric Almirola- One of the major perks of driving for the “King” is having access to one of the sport’s most brilliant minds at your disposal. Apparently, it’s working out for Aric Almirola, because it’s seems like this guy is starting to come into his own. Almirola has recorded eight-consecutive top-20 finishes heading into Charlotte.
17. A.J. Allmendinger- Less than three years ago, the Dinger’s future looked murky at best following his abrupt suspension in the summer of 2012. Thanks to hard work and sheer determination, Allmendinger secured his NASCAR future for the long haul last week, signing a five-year extension with JTG Daugherty Racing.
18. Danica Patrick- Just when you thought NASCAR fans had lost their luster for Danica Patrick, they go ahead and vote her into the All-Star Race. Love is blind.
19. Carl Edwards- All year we’ve been hearing about how Cousin Carl’s slow start was a product of switching teams and manufacturers. Fair enough. Well, it’s almost June now. Can we start talking about how this probably wasn’t the greatest of ideas, Cuz?
20. Greg Biffle- When your overall performance is on the downward spiral, winning an exhibition race feels like you’ve just won the Daytona 500. Hang in there, Biff, I’d like to say things will get better, but they probably won’t.